Iran - Part 1

Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Īrān  -  Islamic Republic of Iran

For more info on the country see this Wikipedia article.

6/11 The Iranian side of the border is quite confusing, but I'm taken by the hand and guided from place to place. The whole thing is a farce. Before I can even follow the officer inside I am accosted by a money changer. In theory this is illegal... I have to go to the "Road Office" where somebody stamps and writes something on the reverse side of the carnet stub, before it can be processed. Another man performs a cursory chassis number check, then I have to "go to the computer". This is an old man who operates an ancient PC running an MSDOS program in Farsi. This is obviously all he can read, because he has to ask my help to read the carnet and passport. The computer barks at "Suzuchi", so they choose "Kawasaki, no problem today!" Everybody is amiable and tries out his few words of English and tea is served. One of them, however, when learning my age says that I am old! When I arrived I noticed that at 14 h the sun seemed rather low in the sky. My gaze falls onto a large clock hanging from the ceiling: it's after 16 h. I verify this with the officer. I realise that by turning the clocks back to winter time a week ago there is now a 1.5 h time difference. Ouch, I'll be riding in the dark again. When I'm finished I change my remaining Liras to Rials at a very bad rate, but at least I have some money in my pocket, cause the banks are shut and there is no change office. At the exit gate, however, I am assailed by a horde of eager money changers which the guard chases away. We do have a laugh about it, though, and nobody gets angry. I'm off into Iran. First impressions: it's very arid here, they obviously didn't get the Turkish flooding here and in general don't get much rain here. The road is excellent, the driving isn't. After 10 km a police checkpoint, which I don't stop at, but they whistle me back. As I ride over the top of a hill I get a spectacular view of the plains wth Lake Dayace-ye Orumyieh.

It is dark as I arrive in Orumyieh and the driving is chaotic. Cars without lights and the intersections are just like in India. I had forgotten... I ask directions to a hotel and get sent in all directions. I end up in an expensive 4-star place where I have my first experience with the complicated money they have. The room is 65$ or 57 Tomans, or is it Rials? I ask for Rials and he says 57000. I can't believe this, so I count out 55000. Nono, much more. He points to his calculator which says 57000, but he means 570000. When I show him a 10000 note he insists that this is 1000. Eventually we settle for 45$, still a lot more than what I want to pay, but I don't feel like riding around in the dark any more. Later I hear German voices in the corridor and I meet a German construction technician, who tells me a little about how the place works. He also says that he doens't get to do much sightseeing any more, too much pressure from customers and compnay alike. The Money Religion demands another sacrifice. He thinks that it will snow here in about two weeks time.

7/11 It's fine and cold. I attempt to find an interesting old church in town, but I can't relate the Farsi map to reality. All I manage to achieve is to ask directions to a petrol staion and find it. Fill 'er up: about 1.5 Euro worth - for about 20 litres. 800 Rials/l = 7 cents/l! Using compass and sun to get my bearings I head East out of town, towards the big salt lake. I have decided to let the wind and he sn guide me for now. I have a few days to kill until my parts arrive (hopefully) at Mehdi's place in Karaj, near Tehran. The scenery is barren, but grandiose: I'm about in the middle of a plain, surrounded by mountains on just about all sides. In the East and West the mountains are snow-capped. Once Iget out of town there is almost no traffic any more, but signs indicating the distance to Tabriz. The road soon joins a bigger one and then heads on a causeway straight into the lake.

I've been told that there is a ferry across, so I wonder... Across the causeway and I get confused: the lake is still on my right, but I'm heading East. After a lunch stop there is another causeway. This ends at a traffic jam: bridge under construction, there are ferries. I've just been on an island, but it's not on my map. I jump the queue, but when I want to buy my ticket I just get waived through. The ferry ramp is dirt, the ferry's deck is covered in it, too. One passenger speaks English and hands me two apples before he departs.

The road continues straight and flat across the plain. The wind is now very strong and cold, but mostly from behind. I note with interest that there seem to be no identifiable hotels along the roads and very few eateries. I decide to push on to Tabriz. There, I manage to buy a primitive roadmap in Farsi only, but at least now I can see where there are roads. I can always write the English names of larger towns on it myself. Wanting to check the official exchange rate for Euros I step into a bank. All they understand is "change money". I get taken by the hand and taken to another bank, from there to another. They still don't understand that I just want to check the rate. "Passport please." "Now give me your money!" I relent and hand over 60 €, which I wanted to change anyway. Later I stop to ask some people for a hotel, they tell me to follow them, jump in their car and take me there. Nice place, but a little expensive, so I take a room next door for about half the price (10 €). It seems that just about everything here is dirt cheap, except accommodation. On the internet the German weather page is inaccessible, a message in Farsi informs me that access to this site is forbidden. Why nobody knows. Maybe it contains the word Israel somewhere and that triggers the Ayatollah filter.

Babak on the left

8/11 I spend most of the day with a migraine and with Babak, whom I meet in an internet cafe. He has taught himself German quite passably in only 4 months and is trying to study in Germany. He shows me around the town a little. I meet some young people who think that Iran is stuffed due to its regime. One even admits not to have a religion (punishable by death, I believe). When Babak and a friend wait for me in the hotel entrance the manager tells them that a foreigner shouldn't walk in the streets with locals, it would cause political problems... My parts haven't even been sent yet, so I re-route them to Stephan, a HUBB contact in Dubai.

Glou, glou, glou - two rows of people smoking water pipes. Strange atmosphere, not much talking. According to my LP guide smoking the water pipe has been banned. No thought police around... I stick to chay.

8 saucers and glasses of chay in one hand.

9/11 I'm off to Karaj, 50 km West of Tehran, to meet Mehdi, another HUBB acquaintance. At first the road seems to pass a barren high plateau with some grand scenery. The thermometre reads 5 deg, but the puddles on the roadside are all frozen. There are some interesting mud-brick villages at the roadside. For the first 150 km or so there are almost no signs on the motorway and NO offramps, but shepherds drive sheep and cattle along and vehicles do all sorts of interesting manoeuvers.

After that the ride gets boring, mostly along motorways to Karaj. One petrol station is signposted very well, but it doesn't exist. I leave the motorway via a dirt track to get petrol. Back on the same way. When I come to a toll station, I leave again via a dirt track (before the toll booth, of course!) to get food in the town. When I get back on at the other side of town there is another toll booth, but they just wave me through. I gather from the signs that bikes are not allowed on the motorway (or does the sign just apply to mopeds?), so there is no tariff for them. So, at the following toll stations I just don't stop, but pass through closed lanes. No-one bats an eyelid. The cops I pass look bored... Arrived in Karaj just after dark I ring Mehdi, who has invited me to stay with him. It's a tight squeeze, but we ride together on the bike to his place.

Mehdi and his flatmate Hassan keep and feed me for 2 days. We go together to visit Hassan's brother's place, where he keeps racehorses and pigeons. There is also a small monkey, tied up to a fence on a rather short piece of string. He doesn't look happy at all. Mehdi takes me to Tehran to meet his boss, who is the chief editor for a travel magazine called Irania. She is a lovely and very switched-on young lady and the three of us have a long and interesting conversation. Her chief interest is how to change Iran's image abroad, to attract more visitors. I'm afraid I'm probably notmuch help in overcoming the corporate media machine that portrays Iran only as a member of the so-called "Axis of Evil". (I believe it passes through the White House and Whitehall, anyway...) Before I leave, Mehdi gets me a more detailed map, but this, too, is in Farsi only. On the motorway to Tehran a cop wants to stop me, but I see him rather late and decide to ignore him. The next 20 km to the turnoff to Esfahan I ride a lot faster, just in case he decides to chase me. He obviously didn't bother and the next cops aren't waiting for me, either. I guess I should have stopped, all cops I have encountered were very friendly so far.

The motorway South runs more or less parallel to a decent highway, so just about all the trucks use the highway and the six lanes of motorway are rather empty. Halfway to Qom there is a sign "Old Qom Road". This is just too tempting, as the motorway is just plain boring, although the scenery isn't. It turns out to be a mistake, as I am now amongst the smoke belching trucks which are constantly overtaking each other. The driving doesn't seem as bad as I remember it 17 years ago, though. I get as far as Kashan, where I end up in another hotel more expensive than I like, but they readily drop the price. Since prices are usually quoted in US$ I strongly suspect that I pay more than the locals, which would explain why they are so expensive. Everything else is dirt cheap in Iran. At least they have Internet, so I finialise the Turkey report.

I check out the interesting mud brick houses in the old town. Many of them are ruins, but there is plenty to see. There are also Fin Gardens. Must be very pleasant in summer, as it's shady and there is lots of water.

On to Esfahan, this time along a smaller highway which goes mainly through hill country. There are many ruined caravanserais round and when I stop to inspect one there are immediately some Iranians stopping to have a chat. It's a shame that all these places crumble away. Next is a little detour to Abianeh, marked on my map by Mehdi. This is rather high up in the mountains and it starts to drizzle. The village is all built in red brick or mud and even on the way up I notice a lot of holes and structures built into the ground. Don't know what they are for. The scenery on the way up is very nice, like oasis in the desert, which the country around here is.

The light rain doesn't stop on the way down. Bummer, I had decided to camp. I end up in an abandoned building beside the road.
14/11 It's a restless night, but surprisingly warm in my summer sleeping bag, but the wind bugs me. Sometime during the night the wind changes direction and becomes violently strong, blowing the clouds away. This is good news in principle, but it also makes he temperature drop: in the morning it's 8 deg. By the time I leave, two hours later it is up to 17. It's a glorious day with a crisp blue sky, so I decide to head back up to Abaniyeh to check out the dirt road over the mountains. As I stop at the turnoff to check my map a couple of Dutch cyclists appear. They also camped out in a shed and are now eyeing up the same road. They tell me that they have been told that the road beyond he village is practically impassable. Seeing there is a dusting of snow on the mountains I'm inclined to agree. They give me an English road map, surplus to their requirements. We all decide to give the village a miss, but I encourage them to ride a short way up the valley for the nice villages/oasis. Looking at the map I think that all I have to do is ride up over the hill and it should be all the way downhill to Esfahan. Wrong again. The road continues to climb, a stron headwind rises and there are clouds on the horizon that seem to dissolve as they come over the crest. I think that's bad news and I am right. I ride into the clouds, it gets freezng cold and doesn't really warm up even when I get to Esfahan. I ring Majid, a friend of Mehdi, who wants to meet me and has offered me his place to stay. Due to a misunderstanding I ride to his hometown of Beherestan, 20 km to the South, while he takes a taxi to meet me in Esfahan. Once at his place I try to contact Brett from Sharjah, UAE, a HUBB biker who should be in Esfahan right now. In the evening Mohammed, one of his two flatmates, plays the tambour for me. Here is a video clip.

15/11 Majid takes me to Esfahan to see the main sights: Imam Square, the Blue Mosque and the palace. He manages to find a bookstore where I can buy a Lonely Planet guide for Iran. It's only 5$, as oposed to the recommended retail price of 25, so I guess it's a pirated copy. We are not so successfull obtaining prophylactic migraine medication. The pharmacist doesn't seem to understand the concept... Unfortunately, the day is somewhat marred by yet another migraine attack, that I'm not allowed to treat any more, due to over-medication. In the afternoon I wash the bike, as it is now so dirty that I can't touch it without getting my hands thoroughly dirty. This is a mistake: I discover a dent in the front rim and the nex day the horns don't work properly any more.

Majid at the palace

16/11 I leave Majid and his mates to head into the desert. Navigation is still difficult on minor roads: I have a large-scale map in English that doesn't show enough detail and a small-scale map in Farsi that I can't read well. So it's no surprise that the first turn off the main highway I take isn't the right one, but that turns out to be lucky, because the road soon ends here:

This mud-brick village is completely abandoned and I can freely explore all the yards and buildings. I climb one of the towers and don't know which direction to look or point the camera first, it's so nice and interesting. The silence is complete.

The village is a lot bigger than it appears in these fotos. I'm about in the centre of it. I can spot trucks driving in the right direction in the distance, so I just follow some tracks through the desert to join up with it. I have to tread carefully: it has rained here a few days ago and there are slippery mud patches everywhere.

It isn't hot, like it looks, only about 18 deg. I get lost again, although not severely. There are intersections where only one or two directions have signs, sometimes there are none at all and I have to guess. I pass some more interesting looking villages or oases.

After having spent so much time looking at the abandoned village and getting lost I only make it as far as Na'in. The LP guide says that there are two options for staying here: in the pilgrims' room at one of the mosques or at the Tourist Inn. Although it's a tad expensive for foreigners and they won't bargain I stay there. What a wonderful place: the place is built in the traditional adobe style. I have a whole suite to myself, bedroom upstairs. It's a very romantic sort of a place. Now, if only there was someone to be romantic with it would be perfect. In the garde right outside my room there are fountains and platforms with cushions on which people sit listening to Persian music, drinking chay and smoking the waterpipe. 17/11 I have decided to head for another place recommended by HUBB users and LP alike called Ateshoni in the village of Garmeh. Finding it is easy, everybody from here on seems to know Maziar, the owner. Even in the village where I stop for lunch, over 100 km away, the local youth know him. Shortly after leaving Na'in I come across this abandoned fort.

This is a rather recent construction, made from bricks and concrete. There are gun emplacements in the very large earth wall around the perimeter. My attempt to climb the towers is thwarted: the doors are welded shut, as are the doors to the toilets. All other doors and windows are gone, as is just about everything else inside.

I stop on a railway overpass. The rail line and the roads stretch to the horizon. Strangely, it seems that on large areas of the desert they have planted shrubs or something like that.

I stop at the outskirts of Chupahan and climb a hill for the view:

In the village I look for a place to eat, but the streets are almost deserted and everything is shut. But, I get a kebab in the next place, although at an inflated price.

This is not snow.

I get guided to Ateshoni and it's full. But, that is not a problem: they have more rooms in another building. There are three French couples with 3 children staying there. They are also expecting a group of 25 Iranians back from an excursion into the desert, but they don't show up by the time everybody retires to their rooms. Dinner is delicious: camel meat on rice. Did I mention Iran is not so suitable for vegetarians? If Allah wanted us to be vegetarians, then why are all animals made of meat?

Ateshoni, means sitting around fire in some old language

View from the roof

These two four-year-olds are the family pets and not in danger of becoming kebabs

18/11 As I'm preparing to leave on my walking trip, somebody invites me to come in their car, there is one place left. So, I end up with the crowd anyway and I don't regret it. First stop is a village/oasis, where some go for a short camel ride. After a spot of lunch we continue to the end of the road, at the edge of the sand desert. It's quite a sight. I walk to and up a hill in the distance. The hill is gravel with copious amounts of salt, there are dunes all around and mountains beyond. In the evening a fire is lit and the young ones party till late. It's good to see the young Iranians letting loose and enjoying themselves. The headscarves came off as soon as they got into the cars. Never mind the villagers... Nobody likes this regime and I'm told that many educated people secretely give up islam. I think the regime is in trouble.

Backyard in the oasis

The Iranian tourists enjoying the sun and the views...

... while the bemused locals look on

Doing the touristy thing

Wandering dune

Back at Ateshoni Maziar gives a musical performance on the digeridoo and a drum.